Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Arguments and Arguing

The other day we were talking about how so many contemporary "philosophers" do little more than present old arguments dressed up in new clothes. There is nothing wrong with this as such. Modern manufacturers, in order to sell an alarm clock, create a new plastic casing for a device that has barely been improved upon in decades.  A danger of declination in thought lurks here, however, in three stages.
1. "Philosophers", by focusing on the presentation, forget about the substance of what they are exploring.
2. In order to persuade others of the truth as they know it, they confuse philosophy with rhetoric or apologetics.
3. They end up thinking that there is little difference between reason and passion. 

About forty years ago Fulton Sheen noticed that contemporary self-professed "thinkers" typically rely less on reason and more on feeling in order to persuade others. Here is part of what he had to say.

There is one lost art that has not been definitely recovered, and without which no civilization can long survive, and that is the art of controversy. The hardest thing to find in the world today is an argument. Because so few are thinking, naturally there are found but few to argue. There is prejudice in abundance and sentiment too, for these things are born of enthusiasms without the pain of labor. Thinking, on the contrary, is a difficult task; it is the hardest work a man can do—that is perhaps why so few indulge in it. Thought-saving devices have been invented that rival laborsaving devices in their ingenuity. Fine-sounding phrases like “Life is bigger than logic” or “Progress is the spirit of the age” go rattling by us like express trains, carrying the burden of those who are too lazy to think for themselves.
Not even philosophers argue today; they only explain away. A book full of bad logic, advocating all manner of moral laxity, is not refuted by critics; it is merely called “bold, honest, and fearless.” Even those periodicals that pride themselves upon their open-mindedness on all questions are far from practicing the lost art of controversy. Their pages contain no controversies, but only presentations of points of view. These never rise to the level of abstract thought in which argument clashes with argument like steel with steel, but rather they content themselves with the personal reflections of one who has lost his faith, writing against the sanctity of marriage, and of another who has kept his faith, writing in favor of it. Both sides are shooting off firecrackers, making all the noise of an intellectual warfare and creating the illusion of conflict, but it is only a sham battle in which there are plenty of explosions but never an exploded argument.
The causes underlying this decline in the art of controversy are twofold: religious and philosophical.
Modern religion has enunciated one great and fundamental dogma that is at the basis of all the other dogmas: that religion must be freed from dogmas. Creeds and confessions of faith are no longer the fashion; religious leaders have agreed not to disagree and those beliefs for which some of our ancestors would have died they have melted into a spineless humanism. Like other Pilates they have turned their backs on the uniqueness of truth and have opened their arms wide to all the moods and fancies the hour might dictate. The passing of creeds and dogmas means the passing of controversies. Creeds and dogmas are social; prejudices are private. Believers bump into one another at a thousand different angles, but bigots keep out of one another’s way, because prejudice is anti-social. I can imagine an old-fashioned Calvinist who holds that the word “damn” has a tremendous dogmatic significance coming to intellectual blows with an old-fashioned Methodist who holds that it is only a curse word. But I cannot imagine a controversy if both decide to damn damnation, like modernists who no longer believe in hell.
The second cause, which is philosophical, bases itself on that peculiar American philosophy called pragmatism, the aim of which is to prove that all proofs are useless. ... As a result, there has sprung up a disturbing indifference to truth, and a tendency to regard the useful as the true, and the impractical as the false. The man who can make up his mind when proofs are presented to him is looked upon as a bigot, and the man who ignores proofs and the search for truth is looked upon as broad-minded and tolerant.
Another evidence of this same disrespect for rational foundations is the general readiness of the modern mind to accept a statement because of the literary way in which it is couched, or because of the popularity of the one who says it, rather than for the reasons behind the statement. In this sense, it is unfortunate that some men who think poorly can write so well. Bergson has written a philosophy grounded on the assumption that the greater comes from the less, but he has so camouflaged that intellectual monstrosity with mellifluous French that he has been credited with being a great and original thinker. To some minds, of course, the startling will always appear to be the profound. It is easier to get the attention of the press when one says, as Ibsen did, that “two and two make five,” than to be orthodox and say that two and two make four. (Read the rest here)
Sheen is firmly in the tradition of the British Catholic convert controversialists, which gained great prominence with  St. Edmund Campion and, later, manifest brilliance with Bl. John Henry Newman, and wise humor with G. K. Chesterton. These three have not been surpassed though they have often been imitated. And imitation is not bad, as we find with classical music. Just because music is old does not mean it is not worth playing again. But let's not confuse the work of philosophy with the work of apologetics. The object and method of both are different. Apologetics aims at showing the rationality of the faith (or at least the absurdity of arguments against the faith); it does this through philosophical, Scriptural, and strictly theological arguments, occasionally employing history and art as helpful resources. Philosophy, on the other hand, aims at explicating the truth about being; its tools and methods are those to which every mind naturally has access in principle. 

Apologetics is a fine and noble task. But it is not philosophy. This brings me to consider a lesser Catholic light, an apologist, one worth looking at in this context: Sir Arnold Lunn, himself a convert to the faith. His biographer notes:

Lunn always believed that, as a means of communicating the truths of Catholicism to non-Catholics, debates are incomparably more effective than lectures. Debates tend to attract the unconverted who will rarely attend the formal lecture held under Catholic auspices. ...

Lunn's motto as a debater was St. Augustine's precept, "Love men, slay errors." "Intolerance of error," Lunn pointed out, "must not be equated with intolerance of men in error." Controversy must not lead to quarrelling, and Lunn's tact and composure before this Australian university audience were highly impressive. Indeed, so poor a representative was he of the Church's alleged intolerance that Glanville Cook voiced the opinion that Lunn was not a typical Catholic. "Some men," he remarked, "are better than their creeds" - a suggestion which amused Lunn hugely and prompted the reply that "no man was good enough to live up to the Catholic code or bad enough to live down to atheism." (Read more here)
 The saints would agree with Lunn's claim -- they were no strangers to controversy when such proved more powerful and necessary than good example alone. Occasionally a person rises above the surface of his freely-chosen swim in ignorance enough to realize that certain arguments would be bad for his "intellectually" held position -- and even worse for his personal life. So he avoids arguments at all costs and protests loudly against reason. It is no surprise that pro-abortion professors are unwilling to debate pro-life students. Art has its place in converting souls, but let's not pretend that it can substitute for reason. Pro-life movies might play a role in converting some, but people convinced by movies often have few solid answers to many difficult questions. The mind has powers the passions know nothing of. Yes, we can agree that arguing is rarely helpful, but argumentation, understood as an appeal to reason, compliments a man and can even save his soul. It assumes that he has a brain and it encourages him to use it, even for his own good.